Quebec, through the looking glass

Harper's motion was clever and ambiguous and did not see Quebecers as they see themselves, writes Pierre Martin

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

One of the key political events of 2006 was the House of Commons motion recognizing that Quebecers - or some subset thereof - form a "nation" within Canada.
On Nov. 24, I noted in this newspaper that the French version of the motion referred to all Quebecers, while the English version referred only to French-speaking Quebecers. Indeed, the word "Quebecois," when used in English, refers to Francophones only, as a quick look at the dictionary can confirm.
Thus the English version of the motion refers to an ethnic concept of the nation, while the French version refers to a civic nation, inclusive of all Quebecers. These two views are miles apart and, as I predicted then, this has led to conflicting interpretations of the motion in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
Simply put, the nation motion allowed Stephen Harper's Conservative government to escape a political trap by sending one message to English Canada and another to Quebec.
Before he became Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, who recently promised always to carry the same message in French and in English, nonetheless pre-approved the motion after meeting with Harper. How a motion with such different meanings in French and English ever passed my former colleague's stringent test of "clarity" is beyond my modest ability to understand.
As for the Bloc, they apparently did not pay attention to the English wording of the motion. They could have scored points in Quebec if they had immediately exposed the duplicity of the motion. Instead, they naively fell into its trap.
In English Canada, supporters and opponents tend to agree that the motion recognizes that French-speaking Quebecers form an ethno-linguistic nation. As then-intergovernmental affairs minister Michael Chong told the CBC after his resignation: "Any recognition of sub-national groups in a way that is based on ethnicity is not my vision of Canadian citizenship."
Tom Flanagan, a political scientist with close ties to Harper, wrote in Maclean's magazine that the motion only refers to a group with distinct cultural characteristics and, since it is not tied to government or territory, it should have little or no political effect.
The motion's conflicting meanings led to declarations that bordered on the burlesque.
If a prize was attributed for the most incoherent gobbledygook uttered by a Canadian politician in 2006, it would surely go to interventions made on the motion by Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Lawrence Cannon.
If Cannon's words truly reflected the government position, we would have to conclude that the motion meant nothing at all, in any language.
Fortunately for the government, the Prime Minister has a better way with words.
As he explained in a convoluted answer to reporters on Dec. 18: Those who share this identity are a part of it; those who don't are not.
For Harper, the Quebecois form a nation only in the ethno-linguistic sense, but he carefully avoids giving any sign to English Canadians that this recognition could bring political advantage to the province.
In Quebec, by contrast, the motion is interpreted as recognition that all Quebecers together form a nation, and it is common to infer that this should entitle the province to more political autonomy.
For Premier Jean Charest, who has hitched his wagon to Harper's "open federalism," the nation motion should allow him to convince voters that Quebecers can obtain recognition of their collective distinctiveness without taking the leap toward independence.
Of course, Charest and the Quebec Liberals know that such recognition would eventually need to be followed by concrete steps, such as a solution to fiscal imbalance, federal withdrawal from provincial jurisdictions, and - ideally, but don't hold your breath - a constitutional deal.
This is quite a program, but one that is better postponed than put to the test.
For its part, the Parti Quebecois was caught off-guard by the Bloc's about-face.
Initially, PQ Leader Andre Boisclair didn't seem to know what to do, but his party and many sovereignists welcomed the motion, arguing it would bring legitimacy to their claims for independence in the event of a successful referendum.
This argument was made most forcefully by former PQ leader Bernard Landry.
In a "thank-you letter" to Harper, Landry acknowledged the discrepancy in the French and English wording, but he concluded, citing jurist Henri Brun, that the clearer French version should prevail, citing one of the rare intelligible declarations made by Cannon to support his interpretation - certainly not very solid ground to stand on.
In my view, both federalists and sovereignists in Quebec are overly optimistic. The motion on the nation was little more than a clever manoeuvre by Harper and Dion to make short-term gains. It worked for both of them. It did not, however, recognize the Quebec nation as Quebecers themselves see it.
When it comes to symbolic recognition, what truly matters is what "the other" says and thinks, and that is better expressed in the language of "the other" - in this case, English.
For those who believe that Canada ought to recognize Quebec as a distinct political community, this motion provides no support. Canadians outside Quebec still show no signs of recognizing Quebec as anything but a province like any other, and the few who recognize the "Quebecois" as a nation see them as little more than one ethno-linguistic group among many in Canada.
If the debates revealed anything, it is the duplicity of some politicians, the naivete of others, and the ever-widening gap between how Quebecers see themselves and how they are seen by other Canadians.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this debate over words with double meanings. I leave it to the reader to judge whether I am being too sensible, or too sensible.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Universite de Montreal.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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